Tingling, numbness or a constant feeling of burning in the mouth or tongue may indicate a health condition known as burning mouth syndrome. Other symptoms include extreme dry mouth, as well as a sandy or gritty feeling on the tongue and gums that never goes away, and many patients report feeling as if they drank a cup of too hot coffee. While burning mouth syndrome affects only a small percentage of Americans, for some individuals, it could be a sign of a more serious health situation.
According to the American Academy of Oral Medicine, only about 2 percent of Americans are affected by this disorder. Although a direct cause of burning mouth syndrome has not been discovered, researchers believe that it develops when the taste and sensory nerves of the mouth and tongue stop working properly, and quit sending impulses to the brain. Without this information, the brain cannot turn off the mouth’s pain receptors. This leaves a painful, constant burning feeling in the mouth.
Another theory on how burning mouth syndrome develops links the disorder to diabetes. Diabetes causes inflammation in tissues throughout the body, including the mouth. Many diabetic patients with diabetes often suffer from gum inflammation.
Some burning mouth syndrome patients experience the condition while using certain medications, especially those medications prescribed to control high blood pressure. Some individuals develop burning mouth syndrome from over use of some vitamins or nutritional supplements, like zinc. Too little zinc may also cause the condition, along with a lack of iron or vitamin B-12.
Candida fungus, also known as oral thrush, leaves the mouth feeling like it is burning and dry. Patients with gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, also frequently experience feelings of burning in the mouth and tongue caused by stomach acid eruptions.
While the cause of burning mouth syndrome may be a mystery, patients should still relay their symptoms to their dentists as part of their total health review. Dr. Steven P. Rogers, D.M.D, P.C., is a Grant’s Pass, Oregon, dentist who makes a point to review his patients’ total health history as part of their regular dental checkups.
"There are many health conditions that show symptoms in the mouth," Rogers said.
Once patient with burning mouth syndrome symptoms was diagnosed with herpes simplex virus 1 after seeking treatment for her burning mouth syndrome from her dentist.
Other conditions that show symptoms in the mouth include diabetes and some gastrointestinal diseases. Diabetics frequently experience high rates of dry mouth, inflamed gums, dry mouth and mouth sores that take a long time to heal. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis show signs through the mouth through sores and gum inflammation. Dentists can also tell if their patient has anemia, or iron deficiency, by look at the color of their gum tissue. In some cases, dentists can even tell if a patient is pregnant, by evidence of small, red bumps known as pregnancy tumors that develop in some women.
"Patients with anemia frequently have gums that are light pink or even white, versus the normal, healthy pink color," Rogers said.
After reviewing the patient’s health history and performing a physical examination, Rogers may refer the patient to a specialist for a further look.
"Some conditions can be handled by a dentist, but there are situations that warrant a specialist and a specific plan of treatment," he said.
Rogers recommends patients with burning mouth syndrome avoid the use of tobacco and nicotine. Avoiding foods that are highly acidic, very spicy, and are very hot in temperature will help prevent the symptoms of burning mouth syndrome from getting worse. Patients with burning mouth syndrome that report feeling dry mouth symptoms are encouraged to stay hydrated.
Rogers encourages patients with burning mouth syndrome to discuss their symptoms with their dentist, and report any other symptoms or issues that are of concern. This includes unusual bumps or sores that do not heal on their own within two weeks.
American Academy of Oral Medicine. "Burning Mouth Syndrome." 22 January 2015
CBS News. "Woman's "burning mouth syndrome" had strange cause" 4 April 2015